What will you do when your supervisor steals your ideas?

My answer to What will you do when your supervisor steals your ideas?

Answer by Enna Morgan:

Several options here. The succes will depend on your intestinal fortitude. You can do the Pontius Pilate lavabo act, or you can be assertive and do this either thug style, or with good old gun-boat diplomacy.

The lavabo act: First, and most common path is that you could roll over, play possum, and kiss his ass for the rest of the term and hope that it never happens again.

Thug style: Or, you could feign submission, and wait patiently in a corner, watching for when his defences are down……

…..then go over and have a major POW WOW, and scratch his eyes out!

But that may just defeat the purpose here, as then he will not be able to see to make that attribution correction with the publisher for you!

Dang it! I so wanted the pow wow! Okay, let’s recoup! While this is certainly not a 1, 2, 3 step process, it is totally doable.

Gun-boat diplomacy

A caveat: The following process will not endear you to him, and could have very distinct repercussions, but it will be one that is well worth the effort (for now and the future) and along the way, you will gain a deeper understanding of institutional bureaucracy, your own strength and resilience, and most importantly, self-advocacy….a tool that will take you places, way beyond college years 🙂

Since your presentation was not published, you do not have a copyright case; however, all that means is that you have to work a little harder, and employ strategic instead of legal recourses. Given that your presentation was public, I do not see any major impediments to proving the attributions (thus, establishing plagiarism).

1. First, find out the publication details of this article. Then email/ ring the publisher to enquire about their process on correcting an attribution. Ask them to send you all the appropriate forms and details of the steps. While you are on the phone, ask a by-the-way question about their policy on plagiarism.

If you speak nicely and ask the right leading questions, the person on the other end will be more than happy to provide all the details surrounding that issue, and the proof that you will need to provide for such a claim. No publisher wants to be associated with such messy legalities, it becomes sticky and unsightly.

Your objective here is to make it easy for the supervisor to make this correction or to make the insertion yourself (with legal aid), if your supervisor does not play ball. The primary aim is to gain an ace card to ensure that he will play ball. After you have accomplished this, make 6 copies of all documents and forms (have them email you, so you have proof of that communication). If they do not want to email you, take their name, number and email address, then you send them and email reconfirming the information (that gets it in writing). If they do not contest your statement, then they are tacitly approving it. Now on to step 2.

2. Go to the student affairs office of the school and find out about their grievance procedure. Get the pamphlet that explains the details of the process, they may be unwilling to give it; insist nicely, but firmly. If no dice, contact the Ombudsman office, go and explain your situation. Ask their assistance and advise to deal with this situation. Make the issue (complaint) about both your grade and the article. You are here attaching the validity of the grade (weaker issue) to the professor’s credibility (stronger case), if you win the credibility issue (which you will, if you have all your evidence), then the grade change is a corollary.

Fyi: Technically, there should be a confidentially rule in place here, but keep in mind that the institution signs the Ombudsman’s pay check…..so do not get too chummy!

Your objective here is not to actually use their advice, but to glean knowledge about the angles available, and paramount to this, it is to gain insight as to how the institution will play in this game of strategy. Don’t give too much – the objective here is to get information, not to give it! Make 6 copies of any documentation you receive (forms for grade change (you may have to get those from the registrar’s office), documentation of your Ombudsman visit and complaint (if you decide to file one)).

3. Request a private meeting with your supervisor/professor, buy yourself and him a nice cup of coffee, large – it will be a long meeting (or short, depending on your resilience and his fuse length). Take your presentation with all the dates and appropriate documentation, along with all that you have received from the publisher. Lay it all out chronologically on the table to illustrate the dates of your article and presentation and the date of his article, to clearly infer the post-presentation relationship. Do not draw the conclusion for him, he is well aware of it 🙂

Tell him (not ask) that there was an omission in the article, being your name (be prepared, have it written out on a large piece of paper, exactly how you’d like it to appear in the journal), and ask him how can that be corrected with the publisher, and does he have time to do it, or should you?

He will be shocked (at your audacity, because he already has you pegged for being weak (for meekly accepting the grade)). He will be appalled, he will become livid and try sabre rattling strategies, such as holding your final grade hostage if you pursue this ‘nonsense,’ how dare you, leave my office, he may even tell you how terrible your paper was (playing right into your feelings of inadequacy (which he already infused by his silence and lack of feedback at your presentation), etc, etc.

Hang in there! Let the blows fall where they will (imagine that you are watching a puppet show that helps to de-personalise the attack). Sit calmly, let him work it all out of his system (sip your coffee while he expunges, you will need the extra gush of adrenalin for the next step). Stoke him here and there, to ensure that he gets it all out.

Wait patiently until he has simmered down to a smolder, your coffee may be on the low side by this time, hell, drink his too! I am sure he will not want anything from you after this, and certainly not in this moment. Hate to waste a good coffee, and after the double shot, you will be well primed for delivering the coup de grâce.

4. Bring down the guillotine. Now, slowly slide the correction paperwork (that you obtained from the publisher), over to his side of the table, and while maintaining eye contact with him, smile sweetly and say (this may be the longest soliloquy you have made to this point in life, so practise the night before; the words have been carefully selected):

Yes, I do realise that this is all new for you (lie!) as it is for me, so I went ahead and got the information from the publisher to correct this attribution. I know that you are quite busy (stroking his ego, which graciously rescues it as it plunges hard at a more-than-normal gravitational pull), so I don’t mind doing the footwork to submit it (puts a cramp in any inherent forestalling that results from him nursing his bruised ego). Oh, and by the way, since you obviously liked my paper (see how that linkage now pays off), I would appreciate that you consider a grade change (nice way to phrase it, no need to demand, it is fait accompli).

Ah, yes, here, I almost forgot, the Ombudsman had given me the appropriate paperwork for that too (it lets him know that the odds are stacked up. It also leaves him to wonder who else you may have spoken to about this).

Slide the appropriate (already completed, except for his signature) documents, never lifting your eye from his. Let silence reign for 10 seconds, then change the beat.

I know it can be time consuming (yeah, cause now he needs to alert his social media that he is not as smart as he pretended to be) so if you need a minute, I can come back tomorrow to pick it up.

That puts a (sympathetic) time frame on it; you do not want it to drag on (he could croak, or make a run for the border, a harsh but realistic consideration), but you also do want to give his heart time to settle back to normalcy (purely out of human kindness).

Don’t linger, your job is done. Collect your stuff and begin to make an unhurried, but deliberate retreat. See yourself to the door, he is in no shape to help you find it. By this time, he may be remembering and looking for that coffee you had brought him….woops! Kindly offer to bring him another one or at least some water; since he is not thinking clearly, be prepared that he may accept.

Er, uhm, yes,…either, .. or, and,….uhm, maybe both! (poor chap!).

Get him a Starbucks, 8 oz size, Skinny Caffe Espresso Frappuccino, double shot (Starbucks are internationally known for their high potency caffeine content, and you want it ‘skinny’ so as to avoid any choking on the high lactose content).

5. Feed the bureaucratic machine – complete the paperwork trail. Okay, part one is done. Now, remember those 6 copies you made of everything? Whip ’em out. He may lose those you left with him, so there goes copy number 2 of each set. Also, you have work to do – complete the form for student affairs and registrar for the grade change (1 copy each). You may also have to sign papers with the publisher (1). One of those three offices will ‘misplace’ their copy; not to worry, you have plenty.

6. Observed the CYA (cover your ass) rules. After all signatures are obtained, this time make 8 copies of everything; the institution will keep a few: registrar office, student affairs, the Ombudsman office, and another office of someone you did not even know existed (the institution’s way of covering their ass); one for you, and one for the professor. Along the way, someone will lose theirs (again) and request another one (the bureaucratic engine has never been accused of 100% efficiency), there goes copy #7.

And the last copy? Being the master copy, keep it in your safety deposit box; despite your best efforts, one day you will lose your copy – shit happens; even to the best of us!

7. Pay it forward. Ta-da! Mission accomplished. Now you are a published author! So when you write your story explaining the steps of how you did it, remember to give the correct attributions…..Wink! Wink!

What will you do when your supervisor steals your ideas?